In the spirit of bettering oneself in the New Year we make resolutions to be fitter, richer, and, if we’re all lucky, kinder. But do we ever resolve to be wiser? Common sense suggests a well-turned out mind is earned through experience over tutelage, but in the case of the 18th century upper classes, les maniéres nobles were gained through rigorous adherence to a social code that demanded one improve upon politesse. An enviable restraint in animal spirits–virtually extinct today–was what afforded ladies and lords the power to glide through fashionable circles with few incidents to mar their family name.
Given our current fall from social graces, we thankfully possess Lord Chesterfield’s correspondence. It serves as a guide to what may seem like many a muddled affair of dead persons to the uncritical observer, but I assure you, the advice is pertinent. For the edification of us all, please allow me to introduce you to our guest, Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield . . .
Best known for his letters to his namesake son, his preeminent work involves schooling his heir on lessons most of us suffer to learn through painful trial and error. His excessive sophistication at times seems foolish (“In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. . . I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.”) but on the whole, his advice is suprisingly apt. Think of his letters as an 18th century version of the popular book by Dale Carnegie, How to Make Friends and Influence People.
Tomorrow I will begin the first of a seven day course for those interested in how to improve wanting social graces, 18th century style. We’ll call it Dear Lord Chesterfield (a refined Dear Abby) but for the moment, I’ll leave you with a few fine words from his lordship on achievement dated October 9, 1746:
“. . . I have discovered [in you] laziness, inattention, and indifference; faults of which are only pardonable in old men, who, in the decline of life, when health and spirits fail, have a kind of claim to that sort of tranquility. But a young man should be ambitious to shine and excel; alert, active, and indefatigable in the means of doing it . . . Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend upon it, you never can be so; as without the desire and attention necessary to please, you can never please.
I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour, make himself whatever he pleases, except a good poet.”